What are age-gap relationships (and why are they controversial?)

Bonnie Evie Gifford
By Bonnie Evie Gifford,
updated on Nov 20, 2023

What are age-gap relationships (and why are they controversial?)

Can a ‘May to December’ romance really work? We answer your questions about age-gap relationships, and take a look at what the research says

If there’s one thing that is bound to make headlines, it’s celebrity relationships with a big age gap. From the trending chart of Leonardo DiCaprio’s dating history (which revealed the then 47-year-old had never dated anyone over the age of 25), to top 10 lists of celeb couples successfully (and not so successfully) navigating big age gaps, we’re fascinated with the idea that there may be a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ number of years between our perfect partner and us.

But why is it that relationships with age gaps cause so much controversy? And what does the research actually have to say? We explore six of the most commonly asked questions about dating someone who is significantly older or younger than you.

Q: What are age-gap relationships?

An ‘age gap relationship’ typically refers to a couple who are seriously or casually dating, with an age difference of at least 10 years, though the gap can be less. The exact number of years for a relationship to ‘count’ as having an age gap can also vary based on what is considered culturally normal, with other factors – such as a person’s gender or age – affecting how ‘acceptable’ others may see that gap as. For example, someone may be more likely to show concern over a younger woman dating an older man due to fears of grooming, despite the fact that young people of any gender identity and sexual preference can be at risk of grooming.

Age gap relationships can happen at any point in your life, though someone in their 20s dating someone in their 30s may be more likely to experience comments or pushback from others than a couple in their 50s and 60s.

Q: Why are age-gap relationships frowned upon?

Many people in age-gap relationships report facing stigma, despite nearly four in 10 (39%) of us having dated someone 10 years older or younger than us, according to a 2022 Ipsos poll. The survey revealed that men are more likely to have dated someone 10 or more years younger than them (25% vs 14% of women), while women are more likely to have dated someone 10+ years older (28% vs 21% of men). Additionally, more than half (57%) of us would be open to dating someone a decade or more older than us, while just under half of us (49%) would consider seeing someone 10 years younger.

Despite around half of us being open to age-gap dating, the research also highlighted an imbalance in how socially acceptable we see it to be for men and women to date someone significantly younger than them. In fact, 55% of people believe it’s more socially acceptable for a man to date someone 10 or more years younger than them than it is for an older woman to date a man of the same age-gap. But why is that?

One concern can be related to judgements about their different life stages. For example, societal relationships, highlighted in Psychology of Women Quarterly, may stem from a lack of social support, rather than a lack of satisfaction within the relationship itself. This can be due to the stigma faced by either or both partners, and judgement or criticism from friends, family, or even strangers. One study in Current Psychology suggested that negative stereotypes and prejudice towards age-gaps in relationships could stem from worrying that one partner is using the other in some way – be that taking advantage of their perceived emotional immaturity, vulnerability or inexperience, or different financial situations.

But it appears evolution could play a part in the appeal, as we can be subconsciously drawn to others based on reproductive needs – whether that be an appearance of ‘good genes’, vitality and energy, or safety and security. In fact, a study by the Institute of Anthropology, from the Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany, has even suggested that those in age-gap relationships may live longer.

Other studies have suggested that relationships where the couples are similar in age may be more likely to last – as their similar life stage may make them more resilient to negative life events. However, experts have also highlighted that maturity levels and lived experiences aren’t always tied to our chronological age.

Yet another concern that has particularly taken the media spotlight in recent years has centred around the discovery that our prefrontal cortex continues to develop and mature until the age of 25. This means that, while society often considers us to be fully grown adults by the age of 18, our brains are continuing to develop well into our 20s.

Essentially, the rational part of our brain, responsible for complex behavioural performance like risk management, impulse control, and long-term planning, doesn’t finish developing until we are 25. This revelation has led some people to consider any age gap of more than a couple of years to be potentially questionable or a cause of concern for those who fall into this age range.

How much of an age-gap is too much?

There is no hard and fast rule on what kind of an age gap is or isn’t acceptable in any relationship. Experts have highlighted the important fact that maturity levels and lived experiences aren’t always tied to our chronological age. So just because our physical age isn’t a societally accepted ‘perfect’ match, that doesn’t mean that we aren’t compatible.

However, it’s also worth keeping in mind that with bigger age-gaps can come unique challenges, including different health and energy levels, and life priorities and experiences. One person may want to travel, or pursue further education, while another wants to save for a house, or their retirement.

Why are age-gaps still such a taboo subject?

Many people worry that age-gap relationships are, in essence, an imbalance of power that leaves younger, less experienced partners vulnerable to coercion, abuse, or being taken advantage of. While this can be a valid concern, particularly when the younger partner may still be in that developmental stage of 18–25, this automatic assumption that all age-gap relationships are predatory can also lead to younger partners being less likely to open up about worries or issues that may arise in their relationship. That is why it is so important to ensure friends, family, and loved ones know that you are there to listen if they ever need help.

Can age-gap relationships be healthy?

Whether or not a relationship is healthy can depend on a lot of different factors. While studies have suggested relationship satisfaction can be high for couples in some age-gap relationships, other studies have found that satisfaction can decrease with age – especially if any monetary hardship comes into play.

Power dynamics, financial stability, and emotional wellbeing, can all play significant roles in whether a relationship is healthy and successful for both parties involved. While we all have heard of celebrities with successful large age gap relationships, and many of us will have older relatives who have been married for decades despite their age differences, only we can decide if our individual relationship and circumstances suit our needs.

The key factors to work on in any relationship are strong communication (even when differing opinions are involved, or conflict arises), trust in each other, and self-awareness. No relationship will always be smooth sailing, but you should both be pulling together, regardless of your age.

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